The next person to enter was not whom Halyn expected. The Zabrak was nineteen years old, not particularly handsome but not unattractive, though his dark jato and brilliant green eyes were striking. His expression was unhappy, and he wore a blaster pistol at his hip with a zhaboka slung over his shoulder.
Halyn rose to his feet as the young Zabrak saluted. Instead of returning the salute, he nodded at him. “What can I do for you, Edlin?”
Argus and Allanna’s oldest surviving child was slow to respond. “Uncle, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything useful.”
Halyn frowned at him. “How so?”
“I’m a member of the Zabrak Defense Force, not just conscripted into fighting.” His expression was uneasy, but that was masked by a layer of certainty. “Instead of being out on the front lines fighting the Vong, I was assigned guard duty here at the Cathleen. Any Zabrak who earned his jato could be doing that, and there’s people out there dying in my place.”
The Ul’akhoi leaned back in his desk chair. “I don’t generally interfere with specific unit deployments,” he said at last. Wonderful. Just like his father. Needs to be a hero, out fighting on the front lines. Didn’t learn a thing from Argus’s death.
Edlin raised an eyebrow. “Really, Uncle Hal? You’re going to tell me that you had nothing to do with me being stationed here instead of on the front line?”
And just like his father, the kid isn’t stupid. “You can believe whatever you like,” Halyn said. “Because regardless of what I tell you, you’ve already made up your mind.”
The certainty slipped for a moment. “But…” he shook his head, stopping himself. “Can’t you do something to get me out and fighting, rather than sitting around here watching everyone too young or sick to fight?”
Got him. Halyn suppressed a smile as the younger Zabrak fell neatly into the trap. “The fact that you realized I did have something to do with your station assignment is good, because I have a special job for you in mind. It’s not combat, but it’s critically important.”
Edlin raised both eyebrows at that. “Really, Uncle?”
Halyn nodded. “Really. You remember Sandarie, right?”
The young Zabrak snorted. “Of course I remember Aunt Sandi. She’s only Mom’s best friend since, well, ever.”
A smile crept onto Halyn’s face. “You do know she’s not really family, right? Zabraks and Twi’leks can’t…”
Edlin raised both hands. “Spare me the details, Uncle. I know that Aunt Sandi isn’t family by blood.” He quirked a smile. “Dad explained those details to me a long time ago, so I really don’t need you to explain it.”
“Anyways, I have Sandi working on an extremely important assignment,” Halyn continued. “I can’t stress enough how important her success is. Get my drift?”
“She was in here not fifteen minutes ago,” Halyn continued. “She’s afraid she’s not going to complete her mission—it’s been pushing her to her absolute limits. She asked me to find her backup if possible. Now, pretty much everyone I trust is already performing some critical duty or another for me, but as you said, your guard duty can be taken over by anyone who can hold a zhaboka and sound the alarm. You up for the challenge?”
Edlin leaned forward in excitement. “What’s the mission?”
Halyn shook his head. “I gave Sandarie the full briefing, but I’m sure the specifics are probably out of date by now. You’ll have to talk to her for all the details.”
“Thank you, Uncle!” he said as he rose to his feet.
Halyn smiled. “Thank me by doing a good job. Dismissed,” he added with a wink.
Anishor barely managed to sidestep a fast-moving Zabrak boy when the door hissed open unexpectedly. The young warrior was gone in a flash. Anishor turned and looked after him. Who was that? Something about his scent is familiar.
The big Wookiee turned back to the doorway and had to duck his head to enter Halyn’s cabin. <Hello, coatrack.>
“Furball,” Halyn greeted him. “Didn’t expect you to be unhappy. And didn’t I tell everyone to leave their weapons at the door?”
Anishor glanced over his shoulder at the hilt of one of his rykk blades. <You only mentioned blasters, not rykk blades or zhabokas.>
Halyn snorted in disgust. “I’ll have to keep that in mind for next time. What can I do for you?”
<Abi and Li…> Anishor hesitated. How to say this without offending? How to tell him without giving him the wrong impression? He trusts my council above most. <I fear they are not with us.>
“You think they really are working for the Peace Brigade?” Halyn asked incredulously.
Anishor shook his head. <I would smell such treachery on them. But not always is the enemy of our enemy our friend.>
Halyn snorted. “What, they’re going to help the Lusps overthrow me and install someone else as Ul’akhoi?”
<No. > The big Wookiee shook his head. <I think they are loose cannons. I’m not sure they will follow orders when the battle clashes. They are too independent-minded, untrusting of your orders and your plans.>
“They’re hardly alone in that.”
<I understand I am not privy to all your plans,> Anishor rumbled contemplatively. <Of those plans I know of, I have concerns about their effectiveness and the potential for failure. I worry that there are oversights, gaps in your war strategy. But,> he continued, his voice rising, <when the Vong attack, I will follow your orders. I placed myself and my berserkers at your command and trust you to use us as you see fit, in conjunction with your plans, and to use us well.>
“But Li and Abi have no such trust.”
<No. I believe they are loyal to you, to your cause, to the New Republic…but loyal as they see fit.>
Halyn leaned back in his chair, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. “You think I made a mistake, then, putting them in command of elite teams.”
<That depends on your strategy, and the importance of these units. If you intend to use them as precision instruments, as your lightsaber in striking the Vong where they are weak, then yes, you made a mistake. If you expect them to operate independently, striking as they see fit, then I can think of none better to lead them.>
“The truth was somewhere in between,” Halyn said dryly. “But as unit commanders, I have them somewhat under my thumb. If I let them run free, I have no way to rein them in.”
<What about the traitor?> Anishor asked.
Halyn shook his head. “That situation is well under control.”
<Why haven’t you brought the traitor to light, then?> Anishor dared.
Halyn raised his chin. “Do you doubt me, furball?”
<Coatrack, this isn’t a game, and I’m not some underling who needs to see you as infallible. I’ve seen you fall plenty of times. We need to root the traitor out.>
“Leave it alone,” Halyn said curtly. “I already told you, I have it under control. Besides, if one of my closest friends could betray me to the Vong, any one of you could. So believe me when I say I have it under control. I wouldn’t risk all of Iridonia over my pride.”
Anishor chided himself. You pushed too far, too fast. He’s relying on whatever agent he has in play to keep the traitor in check. Unless, of course, he doesn’t know who the traitor is and he’s buying his agent time to figure out who’s hanging us all out to dry. Aloud, he growled, <I wonder where the Defense Fleet is now.>
“They’re in theoretically friendly space,” Halyn said dryly. “I spoke with Admiral Saret—with Allanna—only a few minutes ago by the HoloNet.”
Or is Halyn unconcerned because the traitor is with the fleet, not here? Is that why he sent the fleet away instead of keeping them here to skirmish with the Vong? <Have they joined up with New Republic forces yet?>
“Not yet,” Halyn said grimly. “Apparently the three fleets at Coruscant scattered to the corners of the galaxy to pull the covers over their heads. Well, two of the fleets—Antilles’s group is entrenched in fighting at Borleias.”
<Holding the gate open to Coruscant.>
Halyn nodded. “Either to allow the refugees to escape, or to keep the way open for the inevitable counterattack. The New Republic can’t let the Vong keep Coruscant.”
<If the New Republic is preparing for a counterattack, that leaves little for Iridonia’s aid.>
“I never expected aid from the New Republic,” Halyn said mildly.
“No.” Halyn left the rest of the conversation unsaid.
It was a debate the two of them had first had two decades previously, when Halyn had crafted plans to crack the Imperial blockade over Iridonia. Halyn had been convinced, and acted on his conviction, that the Rebel Alliance as heir to the Old Republic would never dispatch a fleet to free the world. Historically, Halyn would point out, Iridonia had sided with the Sith when the reoccurring wars between the Sith Empire and the Old Republic would flare up. An Alliance headed by Republic Senators would never lend aid to their ancient enemies.
Anishor had pointed out, each time they had the debate, that the Rebel Alliance had aided other groups that had traditionally been the Republic’s foes. The Alliance leadership had established an uneasy working relationship with various Hutt crime syndicates and smuggler bands, had drafted pirates into privateer fleets, and had accepted members of the old Confederacy of Independent Systems into their ranks. Now, aiding Iridonia, which had willingly joined the New Republic and committed thousands of its troops to the New Republic Defense Force, would hardly be unexpected.
<What’s your endgame, coatrack?> Anishor asked after the silence stretched uncomfortably.
“We wipe out the Vong here on Iridonia.”
Halyn shook his head. “Not yet, furball.”
<You do have a plan, though?>
“Of course I do.”
Anishor hated that phrase. Of course, in his experience, usually meant not at all. But he nodded in acceptance. <You don’t have to do this alone, you know.>
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The Wookiee opened his mouth to reply, but heard the finality in his old friend’s tone. This conversation is over. Wordlessly, he nodded at the Iridonian Ul’akhoi, turned, and departed the office.
Outside, he glanced around. Where are Li and Abi? I thought for sure they’d want to talk to Hal.
Li Coden hunkered low in the shadow, doing his best not to be seen. It wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be—the severe damage to the Cathleen meant that long corridors had intermittent lighting at best, with the thin-stretched engineers spending their invaluable time concentrating on critical repairs to keep the old warship going as Halyn’s headquarters, or maintaining the few vessels using it as a base of operations.
The Zabrak woman ahead had not shown any indications she was aware of two New Republic Intelligence agents trailing her as she headed down the corridors, some clear destination in mind. I’ve never been able to navigate the halls of these Mon Cal ships, Li reflected wryly, even before they’ve been smashed into the ground and twisted all about.
He glanced over his shoulder. Abi Ocopaqui was similarly crouched in shadows six meters behind him, her scatter pistol in hand. Li grimaced. Abi, sometimes I think you want things to get bloody. We don’t know she’s the traitor.
Of course, we don’t know she’s not. The Zabrak woman had left Halyn’s office in a hurry, paying no attention to the two New Republic officers. Her entrance and exit had been too swift for either Li or Abi to confirm or discount her as the traitor, so they’d chosen to make a closer identification.
Before they could catch up to her, however, she had descended into the depths of the wrecked Star Cruiser. Given the lack of useful resources in the shattered hull, Li had decided to trail her rather than confront her. If she’s not the traitor, she’s doing a damned good job of looking suspicious.
The Zabrak turned a corner. Li stayed hunkered down, counting seconds to himself. When he had reached twenty, he rose from his crouch and sprinted down to the intersection. Abi waited until he had reached the corner before rising herself to mirror his movements.
Standard procedure. Follow immediately, and there’s a very good chance of being spotted. Wait long enough for her to move on, and our chances of remaining undetected are far greater.
Li peeked down the new corridor in time to see the Zabrak enter a small chamber—likely crew quarters—as the door hissed shut. Instead of rushing to follow, he again counted silently to twenty before he left the relative security of the intersection. Abi followed immediately on his heels this time, rather than waiting for him to arrive at the door.
A glance at the legend on the door confirmed his earlier guess—the room was indeed crew quarters, likely abandoned shortly after the Cathleen’s abrupt stop in Rak’Edalin.
Abi moved up to the other side of the door, raising a questioning eyebrow at him. What’s our move?
Li considered for a moment. If she’s the traitor, she’ll likely have a villip or some other Yuuzhan Vong creatures stashed in there. We could shoot our way in there, but there could very likely be something very nasty behind that door. If she’s not, we could wind up in a firefight with a friendly. Not a very good solution, either.
He forced himself to think it through. We need to identify her first, whether she’s the traitor or not. If she’s not, we leave her alone; if she is, we take her down. So, identification first. He looked at Abi again. But we want to do it silently, so she never knows we’re here.
The agent fished in his pocket and pulled out a slip of flimsiplast. He showed it to Abi, then mimed sliding it under the door. The blue-skinned Twi’lek nodded in understanding, pulling out a small square and sliding it under the door. She retreated thirty meters into the darkened corridor; Li followed suit.
Abi huddled into another doorway as she thumbed her datapad to life. It took a few moments for a hologram to glimmer to life, and even then it was difficult to see. The perspective was distorted, the images captured by the tiny holocam Abi had slid under the door. Both agents waited patiently as the datapad processed the feed, compiling an ever-more-detailed hologram of the room and their target.
The image of the Zabrak cleared. Li and Abi both studied the image. Her tattoos—or jato—was carved in fine lines, almost delicate-looking. Her hair was pulled into a topknot, her horns rising in a crown around her head. She was beautiful, in spite of her age—Li guessed her to be at least a decade older than himself, and she’d lived a much harder life—but he slowly shook his head. Abi glanced at him and shook her head as well.
Not the traitor we escorted to the Vong commander. Of course, that doesn’t mean there can’t be more than one traitor.
He soaked in the other details of the holo: a single lit candle, a pilot’s helm sitting on top of a neatly-folded pilot’s jumpsuit on the floor, a sparse bunk with wrinkled sheets, an empty caf mug. Just as important were the details he didn’t see: yorik coral, blorash jelly, villips. If she’s the traitor, she’s playing it close to the chest.
It doesn’t look like that, though. It looks more like…a shrine. To a pilot who’s already died defending Iridonia, maybe? Maybe the ex-Imperial who went down behind the Vong’s lines?
Abi shut the datapad down, and the two of them retreated through the dimly-lit hallways. Li knew he’d be hopelessly lost down here without his partner, but Twi’leks had a natural-born sense of direction due to the generations spent in snaking tunnels and warrens under the surface of Ryloth.
She’s not the traitor. At least that’s one suspect off the list. Time to talk to Anishor, then track down the other likely.
Halyn’s door hissed open without warning. The Zabrak looked up from his datapad. “Don’t feel like knocking?”
“Not really, no,” Kelta said with a small smile on her face. “If I knock, there’s a chance you can turn me away.”
The Ul’akhoi snorted. “Hardly.” He tossed the datapad down on the desk. “What can I do for you?”
Kelta hesitated; the uncharacteristic lack of action immediately put Halyn on guard. Why would she come in here if she wasn’t ready to talk about whatever’s on her mind?
“Halyn…” her voice trailed for a moment, but it was under control.
Barely under control.
“Halyn, what’s your objective?” Kelta asked quietly.
“I’ve made that clear from the beginning of this,” Halyn pointed out. “My objective is to keep the Vong tied up here as long as possible.”
“We’re under siege,” Kelta said dryly. “Who has whom tied up?”
“I disagree,” Halyn said.
“We’re not under siege,” the Zabrak said.
The Jedi shook her head. “Hal, have you lost your mind?”
“Possibly.” Halyn stretched in his chair. “Consider our situation carefully. Lay it out for me.”
“The Vong have taken up orbital position,” Kelta said flatly. “They’re blockading Iridonia, cutting us off from any outside aid or assistance. They’ve landed troops here at Rak’Edalin. They have engaged the Zabrak defenses and are slowly pushing their way into the city. We can’t pull back, we can’t escape, and the momentum of the battle is currently in the Vong’s favor.”
Halyn nodded. “Now, consider the situation like a Jedi, not like a soldier or politician. My objectives are to keep the Vong tied up and, yes, save Iridonia from being conquered.”
Kelta frowned. “What do you mean, consider the situation like a Jedi?”
“Detach your emotions and your preconceived notions of warfare.” Halyn couldn’t restrain his smile as he watched Kelta puzzle it out. Slowly, recognition dawned in her eyes. “You know, after twenty years, you’re still using the same tricks. How long will you keep using the same old plans and strategies that you devised during the Civil War?”
“I’ll keep using the same tricks until my enemies quit falling for them.” Halyn smirked.
Kelta shook her head in wonderment. “You know, you remind me of the time my daughter was six years old and tried to wrestle with Kativie. She was completely pinned down, she could barely move, and she kept telling Kat, ‘I have you right where I want you!’ It was absolutely ridiculous, and you’re doing the exact same thing now.”
“The difference being,” Halyn said dryly, “I really do have the Vong where I want them.”
“You’re still absolutely crazy.” Kelta couldn’t seem to stop shaking her head at Halyn’s gall. “So, let me make sure I have this all straight. You knew the Vong would strike at some point, so you prepared a fleet, a massive wing of starfighters, and a small contingent of ground forces. You also knew the Vong won’t be held at bay by your fleet or your starfighters, so you put up enough of a fight to draw them in, allow them to land, and then cut their supply lines with the starfighters.” She frowned. “Then you press all capable Zabraks into service, into defending Iridonia.”
Halyn nodded. “If we would have had a large standing army, the Vong would’ve been prepared for it. We also wouldn’t have been as capable of street-to-street fighting as we are with the natives of the city, the Zabraks who know it inside and out, who are fighting with everything they have to save their city and world.”
Kelta raised her eyebrows. “That’s cold.”
“So now, the Vong are fully engaged, taking heavy losses but slowly making ground. Rak’Edalin is slowly being ground down while the Vong send troops over their own dead to continue to fight.” Kelta frowned. “So if the battle turns against the Vong, what’s to keep them from retreating?”
“Their own sense of honor.” Halyn’s smile was grim. “They’ve shown over and over that they’ll fight to the end and never retreat. They’d never leave Iridonia once their toes were in our sand.”
“So now, you exterminate them?”
Halyn’s smile faded. “If I could.”
Kelta nodded. “And this is where the uncertain part of the plan comes in.”
“Yeah.” Halyn closed his eyes. “I didn’t expect the Vong to come in such force, for one. I had also anticipated this siege happening before the fall of Coruscant, when there would be an eager New Republic fleet looking for a pinned enemy to pounce on—we’d be an anvil to the fleet’s hammer.”
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” Kelta said off-handedly.
Halyn tried not to wince, but failed.
The two fell into silence as they pondered the situation. The Vong were caught in a vice of their own making, but Iridonia was stretched thin, unable to take advantage of their enemy’s exposure.
“Halyn,” Kelta said softly. “The war isn’t what I came to talk to you about.”
“No.” The Jedi was clearly groping for words as Halyn waited.
After all these years, I should be obligated to make her sweat. Especially after everything that’s happened between Endor and now.
But he couldn’t. Not now. “Kelta, you wanted to talk about us, didn’t you?”
She smiled wryly. “Same old Halyn. You talk just like you plan—you figured out what worked for you twenty years ago and never changed.”
He ignored the jibe. “Yes, or no?”
“Yes,” she said quietly.
Kelta shook her head in wonderment. “Halyn, it’s amazing we ever got together. Your ability to talk to women is…”
Halyn shook his head. “Kelta, I’m fighting a war here. I don’t have time to dance around. There’s every chance one or both of us will be dead before this is over.”
“Especially since you don’t want to sit back and let others fight.”
“Have I ever?”
Kelta hesitated, and Halyn could almost see the memories in her eyes. And perhaps he could; perhaps it was some awareness he had due to her Jedi abilities, her natural affinity for bonds and emotions. Or maybe it was his own memories: flying into the line of fire at Tatooine, getting shot out of an A-wing at Lok, his captivity in an Imperial garrison on Talus, a hundred skirmishes across the Outer Rim, being sucked out of a breached gunship here, at Iridonia, and the deadly engagement at Endor that had killed over half of the pilots under his command.
“No, you never let others do your fighting for you,” Kelta admitted.
“So why would that change now?”
“So what about us?” Kelta looked at him. “Do you still remember us? What we were to each other?”
Halyn nodded slightly. “Of course I remember.”
Kelta produced a worn and well-folded flimsiplast sheet, holding it up. “Do you remember this?”
Halyn closed his eyes. Of course she would’ve kept that letter all these years. “Yes, I remember it.”
“It wasn’t until after my husband died fighting Thrawn, that I was raising Adreia, that I realized something: I still loved you. Halyn, I’ve always loved you.” She was shaking now, but the words kept bubbling out no matter what she did. “It nearly destroyed me when you left. I found strength—I had a life after you were gone. I fell in love, married, had a daughter. But I never fell out of love with you.” Her words flowed faster and more frantic, but there was an underlying strength of durasteel. “Now that I found you, Halyn, I don’t want to let you go again. I won’t let you destroy yourself.” Her violet eyes, so striking and unique, stared deep into his emerald ones. “Halyn, I love you as much now as when you walked out of my life twenty years ago.”
Halyn felt a familiar stirring, but ignored it. Now is not the time. “Kelta, I…” He hesitated as her words caught up to him. “Adreia is your daughter?”
The question apparently caught Kelta off-guard as well. “How do you…?”
“Adreia was on the Cathleen during the battle of Coruscant,” Halyn said flatly. “I thought there was something familiar about her…”
“Where is she?” Kelta asked in shock.
“I don’t know.” Halyn shook his head. “When we were preparing to withdraw, she left the bridge to return to her ship. I don’t know what happened to her in the aftermath.”
“Adreia,” she whispered. “Dammit, Halyn, this isn’t fair. How dare you try to throw me off like this?”
Halyn shook his head. “This wasn’t an attempt to throw you off,” he said quietly.
“Promise me something, then.”
“What?” he asked.
“Promise me that, if we survive this, you won’t run off. Promise me we’ll figure this out.” She looked at him with too-knowing violet eyes. “I can sense…”
“Don’t,” he cut her off.
“Then promise me.”